Your hands are sweaty, knees are wobbly, arms are heavy—and you're pretty sure you have some pasta sauce on your suit already. No, this isn't an Eminem song. It's your worst fear come to life: a professional networking event gone wrong.
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Not to worry. With the right planning, goal-setting, and preparation, networking events can be very effective tools in your career journey. Follow these tips to make your next networking opportunity a meaningful one.
1. Find the right fit
Not all networking events are created equal; the atmosphere at a networking breakfast is very different than at a happy hour meet-and-greet. What are your goals? Are you seeking a new job or a career change, or do you simply want to expand your network of industry contacts? Are you trying to get more involved in your professional community? Deciding on your desired outcomes will help you select the best event to attend.
2. Choose an event
Get some inspiration by searching for events on sites like MeetUp and EventBrite. Check out the bulletin boards at your local bookstore, college or university, co-working space, or library. Peruse the "events" section of your local newspapers or city-focused magazines (they often host events calendars in their online editions). Join industry-focused groups on Facebook and LinkedIn to find relevant opportunities—or try asking your connections for a word-of-mouth recommendation.
Don't be afraid to think outside the box. Events like art gallery openings, bookstore author readings, and community volunteering opportunities can be unexpected places to meet people and make new professional connections.
3. Connect online
Help yourself prepare for the event by checking out the event's online community and joining the conversation. In addition to getting a more complete picture of the event you'll be attending, you may start to put names to faces—giving yourself a leg up on in-person introductions.
4. Make a few upgrades
A few practical tasks (along with mental preparation) can make networking a breeze. These small steps will make a big difference in boosting your confidence before the event:
- Conduct a social media audit, and make any necessary updates to your online presence. (Hint: that profile picture of you chugging a beer is not your best look). Make sure your LinkedIn page, online portfolio, or profile on any association member pages are up to date.
- Practice sharpening your listening skills on friends and family; believe it or not, it's a skill you can improve upon over time.
- Hone your "elevator pitch": a 2-3 sentence synopsis of your career experience and role. Example: "Hi! I'm Sally Smith, and I work at X Company as a lead generation specialist. One of my specialties there is engaging new customers through email campaigns." Knowing your elevator pitch comes in handy when someone asks you about your career journey, and it can naturally take a conversation down the path of your future career goals (and toward a future job).
- Get business cards. Though online connections may be more in style, it doesn't hurt to have some old-school cards on hand for quick trading with a new friend and being a card-carrying professional makes you appear organized and confident (even if you don't feel that way inside just yet). If meet-and-greets are coming to a rapid close, passing out business cards may be easier than trying to add someone's contact information to your phone on the spot.
- A new shirt, hair trim, or pedicure can give you a big boost when it comes to your courage to face multiple strangers. Choose an outfit that makes you feel comfortable, yet also professional.
5. Make an “outcome checklist"
What positive outcomes are you striving for as a result of attending the event? You may decide your goal is to strike up a conversation with five new people, or get three business cards, or make a few new LinkedIn connections and meet at least one of them for coffee.
It's important to avoid the sole mindset of, "What can this event/these people do for me?" Chances are, the more you put out there, the more you'll get back.
6. Be ready with icebreakers
Think of a couple of go-to icebreaker questions beforehand; these can be lifesavers when a conversation breaks into uncomfortable silence. Questions like, "Tell me more about your role at X Company—that sounds really interesting" or "What's a cool project you've been working on lately?" can steer a stale conversation back on track. Even an off-topic question like, "What's your favorite TV show at the moment?" can spark a fascinating chat (though it's best to steer clear of polarizing topics, like politics, with a new crowd).
And while it is more important to listen than to talk, it's helpful to think of a few quirky or interesting facts about yourself and ways to turn them into conversation pieces. So the next time someone asks you to "tell me about yourself," you're ready with a few answers in your back pocket.
7. Follow up
After your networking event is over, you can connect with other attendees in a number of ways. Continue to engage in the online community you found before the event—or join a new group you discovered through attending the event. Go through any business cards you have, along with notes you've jotted down of names of people you met. Send a LinkedIn connection request to each person, along with a short, sweet, and personalized message—it only takes a few extra minutes, and it's worth the extra time.
If you had a great conversation with someone at an event, consider asking them to grab lunch. If you met someone who could be a potential mentor, ask them if you could conduct an informational interview over coffee or a meal (and be sure to foot the bill). Conversely, be generous with your own time; if someone from an event asks you for career advice or an introduction, try to help them as much as you can. It's a kind thing to do—and you never know when they may be able to return the favor.
A last bit of advice: Be genuine. There's no reason to puff your accomplishments up into more than they are, and people tend to see right through it. Be yourself—dare we say, even lose yourself in the moment—and you won't blow your next networking event opportunity. You'll rock it.